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What does Michal Kempny’s run with the Capitals say about the Blackhawks?

The former Hawk is playing his best hockey with the Capitals.

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Edmonton Oilers v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

For the second time in the last three seasons, a defenseman who never seemed to fit in with the Chicago Blackhawks is on the verge of hoisting the Stanley Cup with a new team.

Michal Kempny was traded from the Hawks to the Washington Capitals for a conditional third-round pick on February 19 and has become a fixture on the Washington blue line ever since. He appeared in 22 regular season games and is up to 23 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, averaging 17:46 of ice time this postseason, which dwarfs his average ice times of 14:58 and 15:19 in his two seasons with the Hawks.

But what does his steady performance with Washington say about the trade that Chicago made?

It doesn’t necessarily mean the trade was a bad one — though it certainly can feel that way

There’s room for more than one thought on this issue. It can be said that Kempny is an NHL-level defenseman — and he’s proving that with his strong play in the current Stanley Cup Playoffs — while also acknowledging that he wasn’t a good fit for the Blackhawks style of hockey.

Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz and defenseman were both referenced in this TSN article as saying that the Washington’s play is “vastly different” than Chicago’s.

Later in the same article is this quote from Kempny:

“I just knew it wasn’t working,” Kempny said. “I never played in Chicago against top lines. I didn’t know if I could play against them or not. But I got a chance here, so I proved to myself that I can play against top lines. That’s a really good thing for my confidence.”

It’s easy, with the benefit of hindsight, to suggest that Kempny should’ve been getting those minutes in Chicago. But on a veteran-laden team with a long-tenured coach like Quenneville, that time is going to be earned, not handed out. And for reasons only known to the Chicago coaches, Kempny never earned that time.

Both parties can also be guilty for this marriage not working in Chicago. Quenneville can be faulted for his notoriously short leash for defensemen, but Kempny can also be criticized for the mistakes he made while in Chicago. In this article at The Athletic from last December, a few of Kempny’s mistakes that led to goals against are highlighted. And Kempny hasn’t been flawless in this postseason, either. Watch this blind backhand pass that led to a goal last round. Those were the kinds of mistakes that got Kempny banished to the press box in Chicago. But his leash has been longer in Washington.

It does raise questions about the communication between the front office and the coaching staff regarding player prototypes

It’s one thing if a hockey organization drafts a teenager and he does not become a player that fits into the team’s plans at the NHL level. But when a player is signed from the KHL who’s already 26 years old, the expectation is that he can mesh with the style of hockey that the Blackhawks wish to play. Kempny never seemed to earn the trust of Quennevile, at one point being scratched for 13 straight games. But if he wasn’t going to fit into Chicago’s style, then why was he ever signed in the first place?

Most of the time, when a player washes out in Chicago as a result of not winning over Quenneville, that player fades out of the NHL entirely. Players like David Rundblad, Brandon Pirri, Jeremy Morin and a slew of others suggest that Quenneville has an accurate eye for what constitutes an NHL-quality athlete. And under Quenneville’s reign, he helped players like Johnny Oduya and Niklas Hjalmarsson play the best hockey of their careers.

But Quenneville is not perfect. And this is what happens when a team has had the same coach for a decade who has the string of success that Quenneville has had. There are going to be players who fit in elsewhere, but never seemed to mesh with the Blackhawks system. Whether that’s right or wrong is up for debate. But it feels like an undeniable reality as long as Quenneville is behind the bench for the Blackhawks.